Massive changes are transforming the skeptical movement.
A tidal wave of change is hitting skepticism. The people, the ideas and the place of skepticism in society are all changing. We need to understand what is happening, and this paper is a start.
First of all, what is skepticism? The word is used in many ways, but the Australian and NZ Skeptics roughly agree that it is the investigation of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims using a scientific approach1 Presumably both would also agree that it involves an interest in publicising the results of such investigations, and pressing for relevant improvements in education.
Most skeptics know that we face an overwhelming majority of the population who do not agree with us. Surveys in several countries show that about 80 percent of the population have one or more paranormal beliefs. I did a survey of a first-year science class at Griffith University, and found that just under 60 percent of the students had one or more paranormal beliefs2. Amazingly, one student had 14 such beliefs, another 12.
Now, it is clear that some paranormal beliefs can be extremely dangerous. Imagine a severely ill child, whose life is in danger. Medical science, promptly applied, could save the child’s life but the parents opt for pseudoscience instead. There have been cases of this, with horrible results, in both Australia and New Zealand3. There are many cases of gullible people being swindled out of their money by fake psychics4. In another way, creation science and intelligent design are a threat to modern science: they want to replace it by theories based upon one particular religion. Since so much of our current welfare depends upon science, the threat is obvious. Finally the anti-vaccination movements endanger us all. We have forgotten the terrifying epidemics of the past. Without vaccination, they might return. Clearly, skeptical work is important. However, there are several problems plaguing skepticism, and I want to look at them here.
Religion and skepticism
Religion around the world is going through great convulsions, and this has massive implications for skeptics. We are probably all aware of the steady decline of most of the older, liberal churches, and the rise in western countries of aggressive evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. In poorer countries, especially in Africa, Christianity is rapidly increasing the number of its adherents, and they are far more militant and fundamentalist than their first world brethren. Meanwhile, quietly and almost without fanfare, the proportion of non-believers in developed nations is increasing. In the United States, a strongly religious nation, the proportion of unbelievers has increased to about 17 percent. At the other extreme, in some Scandinavian countries, the proportion of unbelievers is nudging 50 percent5. In Australia, apparently, the proportion of nonbelievers is about 30 percent, and it is 25 percent in the conservative state of Queensland.
There is much skeptical work to be done analysing the claims of the fundamentalists, as their claims are so often false. Perhaps even more difficult than aggressive religion is the question of how skeptics should view the steadily increasing number of atheists and other nonbelievers in developed countries. I have done some informal polling about this, at skeptical conferences in Australia and New Zealand. My best estimate is that about 90 percent of the skeptics at these events would describe themselves as atheists. There is a big overlap between the two movements.
One plausible line of thought argues that atheists and skeptics should make common cause and ally against religion. The argument runs like this. Skepticism is about looking at the evidence for paranormal beliefs, and working out whether the evidence is strong enough to support the belief. Logically, if a person looks at the evidence for religious belief and finds it inadequate, is this not a skeptical process, and therefore are not skepticism and atheism the same?
On the other hand, many atheists have not arrived at their views through this kind of rational process. The two best-known are Stalin and Mao. Now both of these dictators were atheists, but neither can be described as a skeptic. Both supported the pseudoscience of Lysenkoism,6 and you could also argue that their murderous, dogmatic faith in Marxism-Leninism showed a marked lack of skepticism. It seems as if atheism can be arrived at without going through anything like a skeptical process of thought. What’s more, some very prominent skeptics have held religious beliefs. The late Martin Gardner, who helped found the modern movement, had religious beliefs. So does Dr Pamela Gay, one of the most prominent Americans popularising both science and skepticism.
So, while atheism and skepticism may sometimes stem from similar thought patterns, they may also be quite different. The dogmatic atheism taught in Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia is quite opposed to the evidence-seeking approach of skeptics, and so there is no guarantee whatsoever that a skeptic and an atheist have much in common.
Another point comes from Daniel Loxton, the Canadian skeptic7. Loxton points out that skeptics are the only people who specialise in investigating and (where necessary) debunking the bogus psychics, faith healers and all the rest. We have accumulated a good deal of expertise in doing this: it is a form of consumer protection. Loxton makes the key point: if skeptics do not investigate these dangerous paranormal claimants, who else will? There is plenty for skeptics to do in our current area of activity, so why not focus on that?
We are a small movement, and in my view it means that we should welcome genuine skeptical help from whatever quarter it comes. If someone wants to help us investigate the quacks and creation scientists and all the rest, we should welcome them. And if, on other nights of the week, they go off to church or to atheist meetings – or to witches’ covens, for that matter – we should not worry about it. We are doing something important, and we need all the help we can get.
The generation gap
Another set of problems come from within skepticism itself. Until recently, there was a pervasive image of the average skeptic, and it was somewhere near the truth. The average skeptic was overwhelmingly likely to be male, older than average, very intelligent, mostly conservative and grumpily critical of anything to do with the paranormal. Things have changed radically: there is now an influx of skeptics who are much younger, much less likely to be bearded, and who include a substantial minority of women.
This is wonderful. The problems arise because the different generations of skeptics seem to act very differently. The older skeptics subscribe to magazines, often attend local meetings and go to national and international conventions. The younger ones don’t do these things. Instead they blog and use Facebook (and, God help us, Twitter) all the time. The older and younger skeptics have broadly similar views, but they are separated by a gulf of communication. This means that the younger skeptics are likely to be unable to benefit from the (perfectly real) expertise of the old grumpies, and the oldsters won’t be exposed to the vigour and enthusiasm of the new wave.
What should be done? Kylie Sturgess, a colleague of mine, has tried to persuade younger skeptics to subscribe. No success. Also, many older skeptics find Facebook and the like bewildering. I confess, I have tried looking at a few blogs and Facebook sites. Sometimes they are interesting, but the issue of quality control keeps appearing.
What do I mean? Well, the words you read in this magazine, or in any skeptical magazine, have been scrutinised and perhaps modified by an editor. Probably the editor has rejected other material that didn’t seem good enough. There is no such safeguard in the world of blogs and Facebook. As a result, the quality is often very poor. Indeed, in most online discussions I have seen, there is usually at least one person who seems pig-ignorant, certifiably batty or stridently abusive (in some cases, all three). Although there is good material as well, I really wonder if it is worthwhile becoming involved in this morass. Perhaps it’s my impending old grumpyhood, but I really don’t get much out of it. Put crudely, electronic skepticism needs quality control.
I’ll mention a third issue as well: skepticism doesn’t sell, and I suspect the problem is increasing. Publishers are wary of accepting skeptical manuscripts, whereas pro-paranormal books sell by the million. I am used to going into bookshops and finding shelf after shelf of paranormal books, with no skeptical ones in sight.
Of course, this asymmetry in sales fits logically with the depressing statistics from opinion polls. Many, many people want the paranormal to be true, and apparently lack the critical thinking necessary to separate out the good from the bad and the bogus. What can we do?
One obvious solution is more education. If educated people are more skeptical, then they might buy more skeptical books, magazines and so on. However, this does not work very well. Assorted research indicates that education may reduce some paranormal beliefs, but has no effect on others. What’s more, even among highly educated people, there is often a large proportion that still hold paranormal beliefs8.
Explicitly skeptical education does work. For ten years now I have been teaching a skeptical course at Griffith University. I don’t try to affect my students’ beliefs, but they must understand the skeptical approach, even if they don’t accept it. Before-and-after surveys of belief have shown that the course reduces belief by large amounts: astrology, for instance, went from 30 percent acceptance to zero9.
A second possible remedy is to expand the size of the skeptical market. Skeptics are a tiny minority, but worldwide there are thousands and thousands of us. So if we each resolved to buy one more skeptical item each year, it would increase skeptical sales, and eventually increase the books published. So, if you bought a couple of skeptical books last year, resolve to buy three henceforth. Read the extra book yourself, or give it to someone as a present. Or both. You will know more, and help the skeptical movement as well. Start browsing at the Prometheus Books website. Surely, you will find something worth buying.10
Finally, I am going to try to unite skepticism a bit. Each week or two I will plunge into the blogosphere, or onto a Facebook site, and try my luck at communicating there. I will be polite, even to the abusers and lunatics. And maybe I will learn a little more about skepticism.
Wish me luck.
- Compare the aims of the Australian Skeptics and the NZ Skeptics on their websites: http://www.skeptics.com.au/about/our-aims/and skeptics.org.nz/SK:ABOUTrespectively.
- Martin Bridgstock: Paranormal Beliefs Among Science Students. Skeptic (Australia) 23, 1, 2003: 6-10.
- Caleb Moorhead in New Zealand (nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=2045066) and Gloria Thomas in Australia (dailytelegraph.com.au/news/homeopath-thomas-sam-guilty-of-daughter-glorias-death/story-e6freuy9-1225723018271) are obvious examples.
- Martin Bridgstock: Beyond Belief Melbourne, Cambridge University Press.2009: 2-3
- 5. eg Mark Chaves: American Religion New Jersey, Princeton University Press.2009; Amadu Jacky Kaba The Spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa. The Western Journal of Black Studies 29, 2: 2005: 553-570; Zuckerman, Phil: The virtues of godlessness.The Chronicle of Higher Education 55.21 2009.
- Loren R. Graham: Science in Russia and the Soviet Union. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1993. William Hinton: 1984, Shenfan, London, Vintage
- Daniel Loxton: Where do we go from here? (first published 2007) www.skeptic.com/downloads/WhereDoWeGoFromHere.pdf
- Erich Goode: Paranormal Beliefs. Prospect Heights, Illinois, Waveland Press. 2000: 172-3.
- Martin Bridgstock and Alisa Taylor. Teaching Skepticism: does it affect paranormal belief? Skeptic (Australia) 27, 3 2007: 12-15.
- See www.prometheusbooks.com Put ‘skepticism’ in the search window and begin browsing.